The NDP and Jack Layton: Why?

The NDP and Jack Layton: Why?

Jack Layton, 1950-2011
Photo: Matt Jiggins

by Lucky James

Two years ago today, Jack Layton left us. I thought this occasion would be the proper time to discuss why the NDP did so well in Quebec in the last federal election and the man’s lasting influence in Quebec despite his unfortunately short tenure as opposition leader in parliament. First, let’s talk about the reasons for the NDP’s success.

To properly understand the issue, one has to know the opinion of most Quebecers regarding federal politics at the moment. The depiction of French Canadians as uninformed yokels who voted the Bloc in out of ignorance of proper democratic process is not only erroneous, but laughably offensive and a blatant dismissal of their true political concerns. Rather, one has to look at what led to the birth of the Bloc in the first place.

You see, for most of history, French Canadians had voted for the Liberal party. Some people in the west even decried this situation as they felt this was more “French domination”; if it wasn’t for the French voting for the Liberals en masse, the other, right wing parties would be in power. French Canadians have historically felt more in touch with left leaning policies, hence they voted for the Liberals. However, in 1982, Trudeau decided to very much betray Quebecers, making Quebec a province just like the others and reducing its culture as being not any different than the rest of Canada’s. This, combined with the affront which was the law measures act of 1970,  led to a massive shift in Quebec’s voting which led to the 1984 Conservative victory; note how Quebec did not vote for the Conservatives because they approved of their economic and social policies, but rather because they wanted the Liberals ousted.

Then the Meech Lake Accord flopped, and people in Quebec realized something: none of the federal parties truly represented them. The Liberals were still hated while the Conservatives, while less antagonistic towards Quebec, didn’t have values which were in line with Quebec’s, nor were they really willing to defend it. Hence, the Bloc Québécois was born when many Quebec MPs defected from both the Liberal and Conservative parties. The aim of the Bloc was to have a party which no other province would vote for at the time: a party which defends the interests of Quebec. Despite being populated by a few ex-Conservatives, the Bloc would reveal itself to be left leaning, as this represented Quebec’s historical political penchant.

Years passed, and things remained the same. The sponsorship scandal made sure that Quebec didn’t want to vote for the Liberals any more than they did twenty years earlier, while the Conservatives, after the merger of the right wing parties of Canada, leaned further to the right than ever. The Bloc was seen as the only logical choice. However, back then, the NDP was not known in Quebec. To Quebecers, the NDP was “that other party people in British Columbia vote for”. The fact that the NDP barely campaigned in Quebec, seeing as it had never managed to get more than one seat at a time there and so perceiving Quebec as a lost cause, didn’t help.

Then, the 2011 election came around, and things changed. The Conservatives launched a very effective campaign in Quebec, though an ill-informed one. They depicted the Bloc as an ineffective party which could never get anything done in parliament as it was only present in one province, hence could never do anything more significant than oppose motions. As they said, not once in its 20 years history had the Bloc passed a motion it had presented. This campaign however highlighted the Conservatives’ ridiculous ignorance of the political motivations of Quebecers; they didn’t vote for the Bloc because they thought it could get in power; they voted for it because they felt there was no other choice. It was the lesser evil. However, the campaign did cause the population to look for another federal party which had a chance at getting things done, and that’s when the NDP showed up.

A left leaning party which did not carry the horrible reputation of the Liberals in Quebec. Jack Layton campaigned in Quebec, and the NDP discovered something; the only reason people did not vote for them is because they did not know them. As Layton’s popularity grew and as he presented his ideas, the NDP’s support in Quebec also grew, mostly at the expense of the Bloc, as the NDP was seen as an opportunity to do what the Bloc could not: be significant in the rest of Canada, and so have a chance at actually changing things.

And so, despite having some horribly inexperienced MPs in Quebec, despite having never won more than one seat there and despite having never been anything more than a “third party” before, the NDP dominated the federal elections in Quebec and secured its place as the official opposition in the federal parliament. Some commentators take a vile pleasure in pretending this is more proof that French Canadians don’t know politics, voting for a party with so little experience. Others tried to place all of it on Jack Layton, claiming French Canadians are more easily swayed by a charismatic leader than by actual politics and sound economic policies. However, as you can now understand from what I explained, this is wrong. The NDP proved that Quebecers are more than willing to work with Canada and work towards a united and prosperous nation, but only if that sentiment is mutual. It was a matter of giving them a chance, and the NDP did. They voted for it.

But Jack Layton did far more than finally convince Quebecers that they have a place within Canada. You see, many people of my generation were disillusioned with politics, seeing politicians as little more than puppets spreading lies then using their position to empower the entities they actually worked for. They were seen as corrupt, as dishonest, as unwilling to actually improve the nation. Layton showed us something we hadn’t seen in decades: a politician who truly believed what he preached. A simple look at his final letter will show it. In it, you see the essence of the man. You see something which I can hardly put to words. You see something which broke the cynicism of many young Canadians, especially in Quebec, towards federal politics, including me.

Only the future can tell whether the NDP will succeed as well in the next federal election. The Conservatives are unlikely to take votes from them, and the Liberals, with a Trudeau at their head, can only hope that the younger generations have forgotten the sins of the father. The NDP’s true challenge will be proving that yes, they can represent Quebec at the federal level, while also being a party for the whole of Canada.

In conclusion, I’d like to simply quote the end of Jack Layton’s letter:

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

All my very best,

Jack Layton”

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Other articles by Lucky James:
Debunking the Myth of Quebec and Equalization Payments

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JLLucky James prides himself as a moderate in a time where the polarization of issues and the rise of extremism of all sorts threatens to take over the social and political arena. Having studied a variety of subjects yet never truly dedicating himself to a single one, he now seeks to share what he has learned and observed throughout the years, hoping to break the echo chamber phenomenon to which the modern internet has given rise.

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